The limits of ‘green’ power

Linking UK energy policy with 'climate control' is starting to warp the agenda for no predictable gain.

Philip Stott

Topics Science & Tech

‘…actions must not be predicated on speculative images of an apocalyptic vision of life by 2100.’ (1) (Climate science and policy: making the connection, The European Science and Environment Forum, 2002)

Predicating UK energy policy on a perceived need to reduce human-induced emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) in order ‘to control’ extreme predictions of climate change (5.8 degrees Celsius warming by 2100) both overestimates the significance of the UK, and places at peril the development of an economically and environmentally sensible energy strategy for our futures.

Even more disheartening, such a policy will have no predictable effect on world climates (2). The forthcoming Conference, ‘2020 Vision – Powering the UK’s Future’, organised by the Scientific Alliance and at which these issues will be openly and critically discussed, is therefore to be welcomed (3).

However, the UK government has already adopted precisely this carbon-reducing course in its White Paper on Energy issued in February 2003 (4). Being a signatory to the deeply misguided Kyoto Protocol on climate change (5), the UK is committed to reducing CO2 emissions to 12.5 percent below their 1990 levels by 2008-2012. But the White Paper goes much further, seeking to lower such emissions by 60 percent by 2050.

In order to facilitate these aims, the Performance and Innovation Unit (PIU) Energy Review, published in February 2002, proposed to set a target of 20 percent of UK energy from so-called ‘renewables’, such as wind and wave power, by 2020. Even the White Paper balked at such optimism, softening the 20 percent ‘target’ to merely an ‘ambition’ (6). In Scotland, by contrast, ministers have more radically adopted a 40 percent target from a mix of renewables by 2020 (7).

But how wise is it to mix up UK energy policy with mythical ‘climate control’?

We must recognise the sheer insignificance of the UK and of UK ‘renewables’ in energy and climate terms. According to 2001 statistics, the UK accounts for around 2.5 percent of primary world energy consumption (8). This proportion is, however, likely to fall markedly over the next two decades through the exponential growth in demand for energy in the developing world, such as in China and in India.

And the White Paper rightly encourages energy conservation measures that, if not overtaken by UK economic growth, could likewise reduce the UK’s proportion of world energy demand. In world terms, therefore, the contribution of ‘renewable’ energy sources in the UK, including wind and wave power, is minuscule, presently supplying less than 0.08 percent of world energy demand.

As mentioned, even the White Paper balked at setting a target for increasing this lowly figure to 0.5 percent by the year 2020, or 20 percent of total UK energy generation. Allowing for a modest proportional fall in the UK in relation to growing world energy demand to around two percent by 2020, coupled with a rise in the contribution of ‘renewables’ to, say, a more realistic 15 percent of UK energy production by the same date, this would mean that, by 2020, ‘renewables’ in the UK might just be providing a wondrous 0.3 percent of world energy demand. The cumulo-nimbus clouds must be thundering with derision.

But this is not the whole story, because ‘renewables’ are neither carbon nor energy neutral, requiring energy for their own production and maintenance. It is thus always necessary to take into account the lifetime energy and carbon balance-sheet. Moreover, ‘renewables’, especially wind, wave and photovoltaics (solar energy), are difficult to integrate into a national grid system because they are intermittent in their energy production and require a ready back-up from fossil fuels. The genuine contribution of UK ‘renewables’ to world energy demand by 2020 is, therefore, likely to be far less than the already tiny 0.3 percent estimated above.

If we also take into the equation the fact that, since 1997, the Export Credit Guarantee Department (ECGD) of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has been putting no less than £1billion of public support behind coal-fired power stations in the developing world, in China, Malaysia, Turkey and Zimbabwe, the balance sheet is reduced to a hypocritical farce (9). For every tonne of CO2 emissions saved at home, we have created over three tonnes abroad. We have replaced 12million tonnes (from closing down our own coal mines) with 40million tonnes overseas.

One comment on this from the DTI, reported on Newsnight in August 2002, would have shamed even Jesuitical sophistry: ‘A balance must be found between economy and social development and protection of the environment. We are keen to support electricity from generators from renewable resources. We can, however, only support business that comes to us.’ UK policy on energy is, at one and the same time, utterly insignificant in world climate terms and deeply hypocritical. It makes one blush.

We must also recognise that the obsessive linking of energy policy with ‘climate control’ is starting to warp dangerously the whole energy agenda for no predictable gain. We have too often reduced the debate, both economically and environmentally, to a battleground between single-issue pressure groups, each claiming to hold the Holy Grail of ‘carbon neutrality’. Unfortunately, in our myopia, we have also become all too willing to sacrifice our last remaining wilderness to ‘renewable’ dreams (10) – not to mention the secure future energy supply so needed by our growing economy.

The false drive for ‘Green’ energy could, in the end, damage us all, as well as our wildlife and heritage scenery, our open mountains, our complex estuarine ecosystems, and our wild coasts. This is galling because, in simple economic terms, the policy is nonsense. According to Dr John Etherington, former reader in ecology in the University of Wales, for wind power to achieve a mere five percent of total UK power generation by 2010 would require the building of 15 x 58.5Megawatts (MW) wind farms per year for the next six years (11).

Imagine the planning nightmares involved. And remember that on a cold day our peaktime demand is 55,000MW. One 1000MW nuclear power station supplies less than one fiftieth of this. Sir Bernard Ingham, secretary to Supporters of Nuclear Energy, points out that to achieve the same with renewables, wave power would require over 30 miles of Salters Nodding Ducks; for wind, an area equivalent to inner London; for solar power, half-as-much again; for bio-oils, the Highlands of Scotland; and for biomass, a dark forest covering Wales! (12) It is Alice-in-Wonderland science and economics.

But worse, by listening to the siren voices of our ‘Green’ gurus and ecotoffs, the UK government is ignoring the hard-headed advice of senior scientists from The Royal Society on the future role of nuclear energy (13). And when the damage has been done, it will be too late to resuscitate our nuclear programme. By sharp contrast, China, Finland, France (80 percent nuclear power), India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, and the USA, among others, including smaller developing countries, recognise the value of nuclear power in their energy mixes (14).

And we are being pressed to abandon the secure sources of energy that have fuelled our remarkable growth to prosperity over the past two centuries precisely at the time when these very sources are developing cleaner and safer production processes, like circulating fluidised bed coal combustion with advanced turbines (15) and new technology in vehicles. And, as the energy minister Brian Wilson openly admits, the policy will mean that we must become increasingly dependent on natural gas, which will account for 70 percent of our electricity production by 2020, with no less than 90 percent having to be imported (16).

This is no policy for a safe energy future. By striving to couple energy policy with unobtainable ‘climate control’, we will neither control climate nor achieve security in economic growth and energy production. Meanwhile climate will merrily change unpredictably whatever we do. Our only defence, as always, against such changes must be strong, adaptive economies and diverse, but realistic, energy portfolios that are able to cope, whether warmer or colder, wetter or drier, or (more likely) all at once.

Regrettably, unbalanced ‘climate change’ policies are already undermining this through the Renewable Energy Obligation (REO), which requires energy generators to purchase three percent of their output from ‘renewable’ sources (rising to 10 percent by 2010), and the deeply inequitable Climate Change Levy (CCL), which ensures that even CO2-neutral sources, such as nuclear power, have to cough up. Thank goodness chancellor Gordon Brown did not bow to the siren voices and increase this ridiculous tax in his latest Budget statement.

If you really do believe that, unlike King Canute, we can and must control the elements, CO2 and ‘global warming’, the only honest options are an immediate expansion of nuclear power and serious research into the long-term storage and sequestration of CO2 geologically. The latter development would be especially important; I am convinced that, on a world basis, fossil fuels are here to stay, from oil, coal and gas to ‘Orimulsion’ tars.

What we do in the UK will in the end matter not one jot in terms of world climates. But it could hobble our economic growth and ruin our last-remaining wildernesses in the name of a millenarian myth.

Philip Stott is Emeritus Professor of Biogeography in the University of London. He will be participating in the Scientific Alliance Conference, ‘2020 Vision – Powering the UK’s Future’ on 6 May 2003, at the Royal Institution, London. At this conference, expert speakers will debate the scientific justification for a CO2 reduction policy and explore different sources of energy supply for the UK’s future. Full details are available from The Conference Manager, Scientific Allliance, Golden Cross House, 8, Duncannon Street, London, WC2N 4JF, UK, or from the Scientific Alliance website, or by e-mail to

Read on:

Back to the future, by Josie Appleton

spiked-debate: The future of energy

(1) Climate science and policy: making the connection, The European Science and Environment Forum (ESEF), Cambridge, 2002, p40. Available from the European Science and Environment forum

(2) ‘Why global warming is good for us’, Philip Stott, Country Illustrated, Spring 2003, p72-77

(3) For full details of the forthcoming May Conference, visit the Scientific Alliance website

(4) See Back to the future, by Josie Appleton

(5) See, for example The Kyoto Protocol is not backed by science, S Fred Singer, Science and Environmental Policy Project, 2002

(6) See Philip Stott, ‘Who’d give a black duck for ‘renewable’ energies?’, The Times, 25 February 2003

(7) See ‘Ministers confirm 40 per cent renewables target’, Scottish Executive News Release, 25 March, 2003

(8) See World Primary Energy Consumption (2001) at BP statistical review of world energy June

(9) Newsnight, August 2002, BBC 2 (Transcription of Extracts)

(10) See Philip Stott, forthcoming in the April issue of Country Illustrated

(11) Calculations by Dr John Etherington

(12) Sir Bernard Ingham Remarks to the British Electricity Association, 5 March, 2003 on the World Nuclear Association website

(13) See ‘Government must show political courage over nuclear power’, The Royal Society Media Release, 10 February 2003

(14) See Robert Freer, ‘Case for nuclear power’, Letter to The
(London), 14 April 2003

(15) See Fluidized bed coal combustion at

(16) UK
‘will depend on imported gas’
, Carl Mortishead, The Times, 21 February 2003

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Topics Science & Tech


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